The term altruism was coined by the French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte (1798–1857). Derived from the Italian word altrui, meaning "to others" or "of others," "altruism" was introduced as an antonym for "egoism" to refer to the totality of other-regarding instincts in humans. The new terms altruism, altruist, and altruistic provided nineteenth-century thinkers with a controversial new conceptual framework within which to discuss ancient philosophical, religious, and ethical questions. In the earlier idiom of Enlightenment moralism, these had been expressed as questions about the relationship between particular self-serving passions and benevolent moral sentiments or between the principle of self-love and the authority of the conscience. It was in this earlier idiom that writers such as Thomas Hobbes and Bernard Mandeville expressed their view that all human action was ultimately driven by self-interest and that their critics, including Francis Hutcheson and Joseph Butler, expressed the contrary view that benevolence was as fundamental a principle of human action as self-interest. The conceptual history of "altruism" proper began in the 1850s and has generated its own particular set of scientific, religious, and philosophical questions.
"Altruism" and "altruistic" have been used to refer to at least three different sorts of things: intentions, actions, and ideologies. These three sorts of usage can be grouped under the headings of "psychological altruism," "behavioral altruism," and "ethical altruism." Psychological altruism is any set of inclinations or intentional motivation to help others for their own sakes. Behavioral altruism is defined in terms of consequences rather than intentions: it refers to any action that benefits others (normally with the additional condition that there is some cost to the agent). "Evolutionary altruism" or "biological altruism" is a form of behavioral altruism, since it is defined solely in terms of consequences rather than intentions: it refers to any behavior that reduces the fitness of the organism performing it and increases the fitness of another organism (see Dawkins; Sober and Wilson). Finally, ethical altruism is an ideology stating that the happiness of others should be the principal goal of one's actions. (Ethical egoism, by contrast, states that what the individual should seek above all else is his or her own happiness.)
A frequent cause of confusion has been equivocation between the first two of these three possible meanings—between claims about psychology and claims about behavior. The claim that there is no such thing as true altruism, for example, might be intended to convey the view that, psychologically, no one's motives are ever entirely forgetful of self, since we know that we will receive approval and pleasure as a result of our charitable actions. The reply might be that true altruism certainly exists because many people engage in charitable activities at a cost to themselves, but by shifting from the psychological to the behavioral perspective on altruism, this reply fails to rebut the initial claim. Such conceptual confusion and disagreement over the meaning of altruism marked discussions of it from the outset and persist to this day. (Blum provides one useful and concise discussion of some of the definitional and conceptual issues.)
Discussions of altruism also have revolved around fundamental empirical, ethical, and political questions. What are the real roots of human altruism? Are they biological, psychological, social, or cultural? Is altruism really the highest moral good? Are we morally obliged to extend our altruism to strangers just as much as to family and friends? Should we even behave altruistically toward nonhuman animals? In what ways can societies be arranged in order to maximize the amount of altruism? Are the best societies, in any case, really those in which altruism is maximized?
Comte and Sociology
The term altruism was coined, in French (altruisme), by Auguste Comte (1798–1857) in the first volume of his Système de politique positive (1851–1854; System of positive polity). The first uses in English followed in the 1850s and 1860s in works by British thinkers sympathetic to Comte, including George Eliot, G. H. Lewes, and John Stuart Mill (see Dixon, 2005). In the Comtean system, "altruism" stood for the totality of other-regarding sentiments. The new cerebral science of phrenology, Comte said, proved that altruistic sentiments were innate. He heralded this as one of the most important discoveries of modern science and contrasted it with what he presented as the Christian view, namely that human beings are, by nature, entirely selfish (because of the taint of original sin). Comte's hope was that through the institution of a new humanistic religion based on a scientific understanding of human nature and society, civilized nations would develop to a stage where altruistic sentiments prevailed over egoistic ones. Working out how to bring such a society about, Comte taught, was the greatest problem facing humanity. In his view, one of the keys to increased altruism was a recognition of the fact that women, because of their maternal instincts, were more altruistic than men. They therefore should have supreme moral and religious authority (although only within the domestic sphere). Thus the Religion of Humanity, as he called it, encouraged a particular emphasis on feminine moral virtues and the great sanctity of motherhood (see Wright).
Another important Comtean coinage with which altruism was initially closely associated was "sociology"—the new science of society. Two of the most significant nineteenth-century theoretical treatments of altruism, other than Comte's own, were also produced by pioneering sociologists, namely Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) and Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). Durkheim, who drew on the sociological theories of both Comte and Spencer while making much greater and more sophisticated use of empirical data than either of them, made a distinction between egoistic, altruistic, and anomic types of suicide in his 1897 study of the subject. Egoistic suicide was most widespread in developed, Western nations (especially strongly Protestant ones), Durkheim said, as a result of the highly developed sense of individual autonomy such nations encouraged. Altruistic suicide, on the other hand, was particularly prevalent among primitive peoples, who had an excessive sense of social integration. The main sorts of altruistic suicide with which Durkheim was concerned were the suicides of men on the threshold of old age or stricken with sickness, suicides of women on their husbands' deaths, and the suicides of followers or servants on the death of their chief (Durkheim, book 2, chapter 4).
Darwin, Spencer, and Evolution
Charles Darwin did not use the term "altruism," preferring to use older terms with which he was familiar from his reading of moral philosophy in the 1830s and 1840s, such as "benevolence," "sympathy," and "moral sense" (see Darwin; Richards). In his Descent of Man (1871), Darwin famously developed a group-selection explanation for the apparent self-sacrificing behavior of neuter insects. According to this view, communities of insects that happen to contain self-sacrificers benefit in the struggle for existence at the expense of communities made up of more selfish individuals with which they are in competition. As a result, contrary to the popular caricature of Darwinian nature as dominated by selfishness and competition, Darwin actually argued that benevolence and cooperation are entirely natural—that they are deeply embedded in our biology. The problem of how to account for altruistic behavior, especially in insects, continued to puzzle biologists (see Lustig) and became a central topic in the new discipline of "sociobiology" founded by the entomologist E. O. Wilson in the 1970s.
In the English-speaking world of the later nineteenth century, however, it was Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) rather than Charles Darwin (1809–1882) who was celebrated as the leading exponent of the philosophy of evolution. Spencer was also one of the writers most responsible for the spread of the language of altruism (and sociology) from the 1870s onward (see Dixon, 2004). Spencer acknowledged that he had borrowed these terms from Comte. In his Principles of Psychology (second edition of 1870–1872) and Data of Ethics (1879), he developed his theory of how altruistic instincts could evolve and be inherited and how they would increase as social evolution progressed. He denied, however, that by doing so he endorsed Comte's views on philosophy, science, or religion. Indeed, although Spencer agreed with Comte that altruism would increase as societies evolved further, his vision of the ideal future society was in many ways the opposite of the Comtean vision. Whereas Comte envisaged a hierarchical and, in effect, totalitarian society in which individuals sacrificed personal freedom in the interests of order and progress, Spencer hoped for a society in which individual freedoms (and responsibilities) were maximized (see Richards). Spencer's hope was that people would increasingly act in altruistic ways spontaneously and voluntarily, without state intervention. Although Spencer had a very elevated reputation and a wide sphere of influence in Britain and America in the 1860s and 1870s, the scientific rejection of his belief in the heritability of acquired moral and intellectual characteristics, along with the rise of a political consensus in favor of some kind of state provision of welfare, rendered much of his thought untenable by the early twentieth century.
Utilitarianism, as discussed by its most distinguished nineteenth-century advocate, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), was based on the view that a good act was one that would increase the general prevalence of pleasure over pain in the whole of society. It could thus be construed as a form of ethical altruism. In Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865), however, Mill made clear that his utilitarianism did not imply a one-sided commitment to altruism. He believed that a commitment to the general happiness was quite consistent with each individual living a happy life, and he criticized Comte for advocating an extreme sort of altruism. According to Mill's utilitarian principles, Comte's idea of happiness for all, procured by the painful self-sacrifice of each, was a contradiction; a sufficient gratification of "egoistic propensities" was a necessary part of a happy life and was even favorable to the development of benevolent affections toward others. Later in the nineteenth century Henry Sidgwick further developed the utilitarian tradition of philosophical ethics (see Schneewind). In his celebrated Methods of Ethics (1874 and several subsequent editions), Sidgwick tried to establish the proper extent of individual altruism and to show how such behavior could be encouraged while also recognizing the legitimate, independent demands of self-interest.
Christianity and Unbelief
At its inception, the concept of altruism resonated widely in a Victorian culture saturated with moral and religious earnestness (see Collini). Some were attracted to Comtean positivism and its worship of humanity as an eminently respectable form of unbelief, one that combined a commitment to the sciences with a continuing religious sense and with the strong social conscience that the positivist ideology of altruism involved (see Wright). On the other hand, some who were committed to a Christian view of morality and society saw in Comtean altruism a concept of the love of others that was detached both from an understanding of appropriate self-love and from the necessity of a love of God. There were also those who saw in humanistic celebrations of altruism simply a secularized version of the Christian ideology of service to others (see Dixon, 2004, 2005). This last view was held by both proponents and opponents of Christianity. Among the latter, one of the most trenchant was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). In Nietzsche's vision, Christianity was at the root of all ideologies of altruism, self-sacrifice, and pity—in short, of the "slave morality" that was the exact opposite of the assertive and aristocratic ideals he celebrated (see Nietzsche and the introduction by Ansell-Pearson).
From the twentieth century onward, once the origins of altruism in Comte's atheistic philosophy had largely been forgotten, it was much more common to encounter the assumption that altruism was a term that encapsulated the heart of Christian teaching. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), however, continued to press the point that Comte's extreme and atheistical concept of altruism differed significantly from Christian love, whether human or divine. The difference between Christian love and altruism that Maritain insisted upon could be summarized as the difference between loving one's neighbor as oneself and loving one's neighbor instead of oneself (see Maritain). Nonetheless, some Christian writers still consider altruism to be virtually identical to Christian love, or agape.
Socialism and Economics
The 1880s saw a downturn in the economic prosperity of Britain and its empire. The results of this included waning confidence in the inevitability of social and economic progress and increased public awareness of the plight of the urban poor. The economic orthodoxy of laissez-faire, which emphasized the freedom and autonomy of the individual and had accompanied the optimism and success of the earlier Victorian period, also increasingly came into question. A renewed interest in altruism was now evident, not only in philosophy and religion but also in economics. A central assumption of classical political economy was that man had benevolent as well as selfish instincts, but when it came to economic activity, the rigorous application of self-interest was the most rational principle. This assumption was now subjected to more serious examination (see Pearson). Altruism became associated with political creeds of cooperation and collectivism. One commune in the United States was even named "Altruria" in recognition of the importance of altruism to this new movement. The concept of altruism was thus redefined as an ideology, in a way that brought it closer to communism than either the Comtean positivism or the Spencerian individualism with which it had earlier been associated. Altruism, for these groups, was a radical and universal denial of self in the pursuit of harmonious and egalitarian community living. In the later twentieth century, the viability of the assumption of self-interest in economics would again be called into question (see Mansbridge; Monroe).
First Half of the Twentieth Century
The closing decades of the nineteenth century, as well as seeing a new interest in "altruism" as an economic and political doctrine, witnessed an accelerated professionalization of intellectual discussions of the subject. Whereas writers like Lewes, Eliot, Mill, and Spencer had pursued their intellectual projects outside the universities (they were, to use Collini's phrase, "public moralists"), it was increasingly the case by the turn of the twentieth century that rigorous academic discussions of moral philosophy, economics, psychology, and sociology were conducted by university-based experts. The resultant discussions were thus both more detached from public political life and more fragmented. In the first half of the twentieth century the influence of the ethos of logical positivism meant that those working in the human and social sciences were inclined to avoid or even to deny the meaningfulness of questions with ethical and religious overtones. G. E. Moore claimed (in his 1903 work Principia ethica ) that any system of ethics that tried to draw moral conclusions on the basis of a scientific account of human nature and society (as the systems of both Comte and Spencer had done) committed the "naturalistic fallacy." (See Maienschein and Ruse's collection of essays investigating the possibility of founding ethics on biology.) Finally, the success of the neo-Darwinian synthesis in biology and the rejection of the doctrine of the inheritance of acquired characteristics seemed to undermine earlier theories of the gradual evolution of greater altruism. All that was left was a starkly amoral vision of nature as the domain of competition and natural selection. All of these factors meant that even though philosophers, sociologists, and economists continued to discuss concepts of altruism, the first fifty or sixty years of the twentieth century saw a reduction of academic interest in the subject.
Social Psychology, Sociobiology, and Altruism
since the 1960s
Scientific research into altruism has markedly increased since the 1960s. During the 1970s, "helping behavior" and the problem of the "unresponsive bystander" were among the most popular topics in social psychology (see Howard and Pilliavin; Latané and Darley; Wispé). Later C. Daniel Batson stimulated considerable discussion among social psychologists with a series of experiments trying to establish the genuinely altruistic motivation of some helping behavior, explaining it as the product of empathy (see Batson). Others have preferred more egoistic hypotheses, such as the theory that helping behavior is undertaken in order to alleviate the helper's own distress at the suffering of the person to be helped.
In the field of evolutionary biology, 1975 saw the publication of E. O. Wilson's controversial Sociobiology, which set out to explain all social phenomena in terms of underlying biological mechanisms. The following year Richard Dawkins's highly successful popular science book The Selfish Gene was published. It was based on mathematical models developed by William D. Hamilton to explain altruistic behaviors in terms of their benefits to genetically related individuals. Absolutely central to both these books was the puzzle of how self-sacrificing individuals could ever have been successful in the merciless struggle for existence. In short, how could Darwinian evolution produce altruism? Dawkins's straightforward answer was that it could not. According to Dawkins, human beings and other animals are blind robots programmed by their "selfish genes," and any actions that on the surface seem to be examples of "altruism" are in fact driven by the interests of the genes. The existence of apparently altruistic impulses could thus be explained by the fact that an individual who acts in the interests of close relatives (who have many of the same genes) is increasing the chances of copies of the individual's genes persisting into the next generation. Since there is no genuine altruism in nature, Dawkins concluded, the most we can do is to try to teach our children altruism in the hope that they can succeed in rebelling against their genetic inheritance.
Scientific, philosophical, and theological critiques of Dawkins's ideas have been abundant. Some have argued that the idea that genes can have "interests" or be described as "selfish" is misleadingly anthropomorphic. Dawkins has replied that these are only metaphors, but ones that help to communicate the fact that the real business of evolution goes on at the genetic level. But others have questioned whether it has really been established that selection operates exclusively, or even primarily, at the genetic level rather than at the level of individuals, groups, or species (see Sober and Wilson). And many commentators have found the view of human nature implicit in The Selfish Gene to be unacceptably cynical, fatalistic, and pessimistic.
Since the 1990s, although academic discussions have now moved on from the agenda set by sociobiology and The Selfish Gene, the topic of "altruism" has continued to attract a great deal of attention from a wide range of disciplines, including theology, philosophy, evolutionary biology, economics, social psychology, and sociology (see Batson; Mansbridge; Monroe; and for a particularly helpful collection, Post et al.). The same central questions about what science, religion, and philosophy each have to contribute to an understanding of human altruism, and about their ethical and political implications, continue to be vigorously debated.
See also Christianity: Overview ; Good ; Moral Sense ; Philanthropy ; Utilitarianism .
Batson, C. Daniel. The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1991.
Comte, Auguste. System of Positive Polity; or, Treatise on Sociology, Instituting the Religion of Humanity. Translated by Edward Spencer Beesly et al. 4 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1875–1877.
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 1871. Edited and with an introduction by James Moore and Adrian Desmond. London: Penguin, 2004.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Durkheim, Emile. Suicide: A Study in Sociology, 1897. Translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson, edited with an introduction by George Simpson. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952.
Latané, Bibb, and John M. Darley. The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn't He Help? New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1970.
Mill, John Stuart. Auguste Comte and Positivism. London: Trübner, 1865.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality, 1887. Translated by Carol Diethe, edited with an introduction by Keith Ansell-Pearson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Sober, Elliott, and David Sloan Wilson. Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behaviour. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Wispé, Lauren, ed. Altruism, Sympathy, and Helping: Psychological and Sociological Principles. New York and London: Academic Press, 1978.
Blum, Lawrence. "Altruism." In Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker. New York and London: Routledge, 2001.
Collini, Stefan. "The Culture of Altruism." In Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850–1930. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
Dixon, Thomas. "Herbert Spencer and Altruism: The Sternness and Kindness of a Victorian Moralist." In Herbert Spencer, 1820–1903: Founding Father of Modern Sociology, edited by Greta Jones. London: Galton Institute, 2004.
——. "The Invention of Altruism: Auguste Comte's Positive Polity and Respectable Unbelief in Victorian Britain." In Science and Beliefs: From Natural Philosophy to Natural Science, 1700–1900, edited by David Knight and Matthew Eddy. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005.
Lustig, Abigail. "Ants and the Nature of Nature in Auguste Forel, Erich Wasmann, and William Morton Wheeler." In The Moral Authority of Nature, edited by Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Maienschein, Jane, and Michael Ruse, eds. Biology and the Foundation of Ethics. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Mansbridge, Jane, ed. Beyond Self-Interest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Maritain, Jacques. Moral Philosophy: An Historical and Critical Survey of the Great Systems. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964. Chapters 11, 12.
Monroe, Kristen Renwick. "A Fat Lady in a Corset: Altruism and Social Theory." American Journal of Political Science 38 (1994): 861–893.
Pearson, Heath. "Economics and Altruism at the Fin de Siècle." In Worlds of Political Economy, edited by Martin J. Daunton and Frank Trentmann. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Post, Stephen G., et al., eds. Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Richards, Robert. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Especially chapters 4–7.
Schneewind, J. B. Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.
Spencer, Herbert. The Data of Ethics. London: Williams and Norgate, 1879.
Wright, Terence R. The Religion of Humanity: The Impact of Comtean Positivism on Victorian Britain. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Three terms are commonly used in the broad research area that investigates positive interpersonal action: prosocial behavior, helping behavior, and altruism. "Prosocial behavior" is the broadest of the three; it refers to any behavior that can be construed as consistent with the norms of a given society. Thus, murder, when enacted on behalf of one's country on a battlefield, is as prosocial a behavior as intervening to prevent a crime. "Helping behavior" refers simply to any behavior that provides some benefit to its recipient. "Altruism" is the narrowest of the three concepts. Altruism is behavior that not only provides benefits to its recipient but also provides no benefits to the actor and even incurs some costs. If one conceives of psychological rewards as benefits to the actor, this definition of altruism is so narrow that it excludes virtually all human behavior. Hence, many social psychologists maintain simply that altruistic behavior need exclude only the receipt of material benefits by the actor. Some theorists require as part of the definition that the act be motivated "with an ultimate goal of benefiting someone else" (Batson 1991, p. 2), but do not rule out the incidental receipt of benefits by the actor.
Related terms include philanthropy, charity, volunteering, sharing, and cooperating. Philanthropy and charity have largely come to mean donation of money or material goods. Volunteering, similarly, generally refers to giving time for the ultimate purpose of benefiting others, under the aegis of some nonprofit organization. Sharing and cooperating refer to coordinated actions among members of a group or collectivity in the service of better outcomes for the group as a whole. All of these terms may be subsumed under the generic term "prosocial behavior," and often under "helping behavior," although they would seldom meet the stringent criteria for altruism.
The origins of the contemporary study of altruism have been traced back to August Comte, who explored the development of altruism and "sympathetic instincts." The existence of an altruistic instinct was emphasized in McDougall's Introduction to Social Psychology (1908) but argued against by the naturalistic observational research of Lois Murphy (1937). Early symbolic interactionists attributed altruistic behavior to the capacity to "take the role of the other"—to imagine oneself in another person's situation (Mead 1934). The developmental study of altruism has built on the theoretical work of Piaget (1932), who explored stages in the development of sharing behavior, as well as on the work of Kohiberg (1969) on the development of moral judgment. Hartshorne and May conducted one of the earliest series of empirical studies (1928–30), focusing on honesty and altruism in children. Sorokin (1950, 1970) wrote extensively on love and altruism, and carried out the first empirical work on informal helping and volunteering by studying individuals nominated by others as "good neighbors." It is only since the mid-1960s, however, that altruism has been extensively examined through systematic research.
Most social psychology textbooks attribute this upsurge of interest in altruism and helping behavior to the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 and the failure of the thirty-nine witnesses to intervene. The subject of widespread media coverage, this incident motivated Latané and Darley's experimental investigations of bystander inaction, published in The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn't He Help? (1970). During the 1970s, helping behavior became one of the most popular topics in social psychological research, although this emphasis declined considerably through the 1980s and 1990s (see Batson 1998 for figures on the number of published studies by decade). Because of this beginning, the vast majority of the studies deal with intervention in the momentary problems of strangers. Only since the 1990s has there been much attention to informal and formal volunteering, charitable donation, and blood donation. Virtually all textbooks now have a chapter on altruism and helping behavior, and a number of books on the topic have been published in the past three decades.
THEORIES OF ALTRUISM AND HELPING BEHAVIOR
Helping behavior has been explained within a variety of theoretical frameworks, among them evolutionary psychology, social learning, and cognitive development. One sociobiological approach maintains that helping behavior and altruism have developed through the selective accumulation of behavioral tendencies transmitted genetically. Three mechanisms have been suggested: kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and group selection (see Sober and Wilson 1998). These mechanisms explain the evolution of altruistic behavior as a function of, in turn: the greater likelihood that altruists would save kin, through perpetuating an altruistic gene shared among them; a tendency to help others who have engaged in helpful acts, presumably based on a reciprocity gene; and the greater likelihood of survival of entire groups that include a higher proportion of altruists. A second sociobiological theory maintains that helping behavior has developed through sociocultural evolution, the selective accumulation of behavior retained through purely social modes of transmission. (See Krebs and Miller  for an excellent review of this literature.) The cognitive-developmental approach to the development of helping behavior in children emphasizes the transformation of cognitive structures and experiential role-taking opportunities as determinants. Social learning theory explains altruism and helping behavior as learned through interaction with the social environment, mainly through imitation and modeling, but also through reinforcement. Reflecting the same behaviorist principles, exchange theory suggests that individuals perform helping acts while guided by the principles of maximizing rewards and minimizing costs. Helping behavior is instrumental in acquiring rewards that may be material, social, or even self-administered. A more explicitly sociological framework suggests that individuals help out of conformity to social norms that prescribe helping. Three norms have received special attention: the norm of giving, which prescribes giving for its own sake; the norm of social responsibility, which prescribes helping others who are dependent; and the norm of reciprocity, which prescribes that individuals should help those who have helped them.
Reflecting the contemporary social psychological emphasis on cognition, several decisionmaking models of helping behavior have guided much of the research into adult helping behavior (Latané and Darley 1970; Piliavin et al. 1981; Schwartz and Howard 1981). These models specify sequential decisions that begin with noticing a potential helping situation and end with a decision to help (or not). Research has focused on identifying those personality and situational variables that influence this decision-making process and specifying how they do so. There also has begun to be more attention to the social and sociological aspects of helping—to the context in which helping occurs, to the relationship between helper and helped, and to structural factors that may affect these interactions (Gergen and Gergen 1983; Callero 1986). A very active focus of work, mainly identified with Batson (see, e.g., Batson 1991) and Cialdini and colleagues, has been the attempt to demonstrate (or refute) the existence of "true" altruistic motivations for helping.
RESEARCH ON ALTRUISM AND HELPING BEHAVIOR
Person Variables. There has been an extensive and confused debate, due both to definitional and measurement problems, about the existence of an altruistic personality (see Schroeder et al. 1995). There is now good evidence of a pattern of prosocial personality traits that characterize individuals whose behavior involves long-term, sustained forms of helping behavior (e.g., community mental health workers, see Krebs and Miller 1985; volunteers who work with AIDS patients, see Penner et al. 1995; Penner and Finkelstein 1998). The traits that make up the prosocial personality include empathy, a sense of responsibility, concern for the welfare of others, and a sense of self-efficacy. With regard to helping in emergencies, the evidence is stronger for person by situation effects; that is, interactions of characteristics of both individuals and situations that influence helping in emergencies. For example, self-confidence and independence can predict differentially how individuals will behave in emergency situations when there are others present or when the person is alone (Wilson 1976). And Batson and his colleagues have found that prosocial personality characteristics correlate with helping, but only when helping is egoistically motivated, not when true altruism is involved. The general proposal that individual difference factors are most effective when situational pressures are weak seems generally applicable in the helping area.
Internalized values as expressed in personal norms have also been shown to influence helping. Personal norms generate the motivation to help through their implications for self-based costs and benefits; behavior consistent with personal norms creates rewards such as increased self-esteem, whereas behavior that contradicts personal norms generates self-based costs such as shame. This influence has been demonstrated in high-cost helping such as bone marrow donation (Schwartz 1977). Other personality correlates of helping are less directly related to the costs and benefits of the helping act itself. For example, information-processing styles such as cognitive complexity influence helping.
Clary and Snyder (1991) have pursued a functional approach to understanding motivations for helping. They have developed a questionnaire measure that distinguishes six potential motives for long-term volunteering (e.g. value expression, social motivation, career orientation) and have demonstrated both predictive and discriminant validity for the instrument (Clary, Snyder et al. 1998). In one study, they showed that it was not the more purely altruistic motivations that predicted long-term commitment. Temporary emotional states or moods may also affect helping. A series of studies by Isen (1970) and her colleagues demonstrate that the "glow of good will" induces people to perform at least low-cost helping acts such as helping someone pick up a pile of dropped papers, and research by Cialdini and colleagues has shown that helping can be motivated by the need to dispel a bad mood.
Situation Variables. Characteristics of the situation also influence the decision to help. The salience and clarity of a victim's need influence both the initial tendency to notice need and the definition of the perceived need as serious. Salience and clarity of need increase as the physical distance between an observer and a victim decreases; thus, victims of an emergency are more likely to be helped by those physically near by. Situational cues regarding the seriousness of another's need influence whether need is defined as serious enough to warrant action. Bystanders are more likely to offer aid when a victim appears to collapse from a heart attack than from a hurt knee, for example, presumably because of perceived seriousness. The presence of blood, on the other hand, can deter helping, perhaps because it suggests a problem serious enough to require medical attention.
One of the most strongly supported findings in the area of helping is that the number of others present in a potential helping situation influences an individual's decision to help. Darley and Latané (1968) demonstrated experimentally that the higher the number of others present, the lower the chance of any one individual helping. One process underlying this effect involves the diffusion of responsibility: the higher the number of potential helpers, the less any given individual perceives a personal responsibility to intervene. The presence of an individual who may be perceived as having special competence to help also reduces the felt responsibility of others to help. Thus, when someone in medical clothing is present at a medical emergency, others are less likely to help. A second process underlying the effect, when bystanders can see each other, involves definition of the situation. If no one moves to intervene, the group may collectively provide a social definition for each other that the event is not one that requires intervention.
Social Variables. Research has also demonstrated the influence of other social variables on helping. Darley and Latané (1968) showed experimentally that people were more likely to provide help in an emergency in the presence of a friend rather than in the presence of strangers. They reasoned that in emergency situations in which a friend does not respond, one is not likely to attribute this to lack of concern, but rather will seek other explanations. In addition, bystanders who are acquainted are more likely to talk about the situation. Thus, preexisting social relationships among bystanders affect helping. Individuals are also more likely to help others who are similar to them, whether in dress style or in political ideology. The perceived legitimacy of need, a variable defined by social norms, also affects rates of helping. In one field study of emergency intervention, bystanders were more likely to help a stranger who collapsed in a subway car if the distress was attributed to illness rather than to drunkenness (Piliavin, Rodin, and Piliavin 1969).
Other demographic variables, such as sex, age, socioeconomic status, and race have also been investigated. Race appears to affect helping mainly when the costs for helping are relatively high, or when failure to help can be attributed to factors other than prejudice (Dovidio 1984). In the study cited above (Piliavin et al. 1969) the rate of helping by white and black bystanders was unrelated to the race of the victim who appeared to be ill, but help offered to the drunk was almost always by people of his own race. Females are usually helped more than males, but who helps more depends heavily on the nature of the help required. Males tend to help females more than they help males, whereas females are equally helpful to females and males (see Piliavin and Unger 1985). This pattern may reflect stereotypic gender roles: Females are stereotyped as dependent and weaker than males. Other studies of the effect of social statuses on helping indicate, consistent with social categorization theory, that members of one's own group tend to be helped more than outgroup members. Studies of reactions following natural disasters show that people tend to give aid first to family members, then to friends and neighbors, and last to strangers.
THE SOCIOLOGICAL CONTEXT OF HELPING
Gergen and Gergen (1983) call for increased attention to the social structural context of helping and to the interactive history and process of the helping relationship (see also Piliavin and Charng 1990). Social structure is clearly important as a context for helping. Social structure specifies the pool of social roles and meaning systems associated with any interaction (Callero, Howard, and Piliavin 1987). Social structure also influences the distribution of resources that may be necessary for certain helping relationships. One needs money to be able to donate to a charity and medical expertise to be able to help earthquake victims. Wilson and Musick (1997) have presented data in support of a model using both social and cultural capital as predictors of involvement in both formal and informal volunteering. Social structure also determines the probability of both social and physical interaction among individuals and thus influences the possibility of helping.
Interaction history is also crucial to understanding helping behavior. If a relationship has been positive and mutually supportive, this context suggests that beneficial actions should be defined as helping. If a relationship has been characterized by competition and conflict, this context does not support defining beneficial action as helping. In this case, alternative, more self-serving motivations may underlie helping. Thus the provision of U.S. foreign aid to countries with which the United States has had conflict is often viewed as a strategic tool, whereas when such aid has been provided to countries with which the United States has had positive relationships, it is viewed generally as genuine helping. Such patterns illustrate this influence of interaction history on the interpretation of helping behavior.
Another sociological approach emphasizes helping as role behavior and is guided by Mead's (1934) conception of roles as patterns of social acts framed by a community and recognized as distinct objects of the social environment. Roles define individual selves and thus also guide individual perception and action. Helping behavior has been shown to express social roles. A series of studies of blood donors (Callero, Howard, and Piliavin 1987; Piliavin and Callero 1991) demonstrate that role-person merger (when a social role becomes an essential aspect of self) predicts blood donation, independent of the effects of both personal and social norms, and is more strongly associated with a history of blood donation than are social or personal norms. This study demonstrates the importance of helping for self-validation and reproduction of the social structure as expressed in roles. More recent research has shown similar effects for identities tied to volunteering time and giving money (Grube and Piliavin in press; Lee, Piliavin, and Call in press). This attention to concepts such as roles, interaction history, and social structure is evidence of the sociological significance of altruism and helping behavior.
CROSS-CULTURAL RESEARCH IN ALTRUISM
Until the last few decades, little work had been done systematically comparing altruism and helping behavior across cultures. Beginning in the 1970s, researchers have compared helping in rural and urban areas, rather consistently finding that helping of strangers, although not of kin, is more likely in less densely populated areas all around the world. In a real sense, urban and rural areas have different "cultures"; small towns are more communal or collective, while cities are more individualistic. A review of other cross-cultural comparisons (Ting and Piliavin forthcoming) examines similarities and differences not only in the helping of strangers but also in the development of moral reasoning, socialization of prosocial behavior, and participation in "civil society." The collectivism-individualism distinction across societies provides a good organizing principle for understanding many of the differences that are found. Not only do societies differ in the level of helping, but in the pattern. For example, in communal societies, the difference between the amount of help offered to ingroup and outgroup members is exaggerated in comparison with the more individualistic societies.
ALTRUISM RESEARCH IN OTHER FIELDS
Scholars from many fields other than social psychology have also addressed the question of altruism. The long debate in evolutionary biology regarding the possibility that altruism could have survival value appears to have been answered in the affirmative (Sober and Wilson 1998). Some authors (e.g. Johnson 1986; Rushton 1998) in fact view patriotism or ethnic conflict, or both, as rooted in altruism fostered by kin selection. Game theorists have discovered that in repeated prisoner's dilemma games and public goods problems, some individuals consistently behave in more cooperative or altruistic ways than do others (Liebrand 1986). Even economists and political scientists, who have long held to the belief that all motivation is essentially selfish, have begun to come to grips with evidence (such as voting behavior and the public goods issue) that indicates that this is not true (see Mansbridge 1990; Clark 1998).
Recommended reading. The interested reader is referred Schroeder et al., The Psychology of Helping and Altruism (1995) for a relatively nontechnical overview of the field, or Batson, "Altruism and Prosocial Behavior" (1998) for a briefer, more technical approach emphasizing work demonstrating that "true altruism" can be a motivation for helping. For an excellent examination of approaches to the topic of altruism by economists and political scientists, read Mansbridge, Beyond Self-Interest (1990). For an engaging read on the topic of both evolutionary and psychological altruism, try Sober and Wilson's Unto Others (1998). Finally, for a view toward the practical application of ideas from altruism research, read Oliner et al., Embracing the Other (1992). (Full citations for these works are in the references that follow.)
(see also: Social Psychology)
Batson, C. Daniel 1998 "Altruism and Prosocial Behavior." In Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, eds., The Handbook of Social Psychology, vol. 2, 4th ed., Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill.
——1991 The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.
Callero, Peter L. 1986 "Putting the Social in Prosocial Behavior: An Interactionist Approach to Altruism." Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 13:15–32.
——, Judith A. Howard, and Jane A. Piliavin 1987 "Helping Behavior as Role Behavior: Disclosing Social Structure and History in the Analysis of Prosocial Action." Social Psychology Quarterly 50:247–256.
Cialdini, Robert B., Donald J. Baumann, and Douglas T. Kenrick 1981 "Insights from Sadness: A Three-Step Model of the Development of Altruism as Hedonism." Developmental Review 1:207–223.
Clark, Jeremy 1998 "Fairness in Public Good Provision: an Investigation of Preferences for Equality and Proportionality." Canadian Journal of Economics 31:708–729.
Clary, E. Gil, and Mark Snyder 1991 "Functional Analysis of Altruism and Prosocial Behavior: the Case of Volunteerism." In M.S. Clark, ed., Prosocial Behavior Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.
——, Robert D. Ridge, John Copeland, Arthur A. Stukas, Julie Haugen, and Peter Miene 1998 "Understanding and Assessing the Motivations of Volunteers: A Functional Approach." Journal of Personalityand Social Psychology 74:1516–1530.
Darley, John M., and Bibb Latané 1968 "Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 8:377–383.
Dovidio, John F. 1984 "Helping Behavior and Altruism: An Empirical and Conceptual Overview." In L. Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 17. New York: Academic.
Gergen, Kenneth J., and Mary M. Gergen 1983 "Social Construction of Helping Relationships." In J. F. Fisher, A. Nadler, and B. M. DePaulo, eds., NewDirections in Helping, vol. I. New York: Academic.
Grube, Jean, and Jane A. Piliavin forthcoming "Role Identity and Volunteer Performance." Personality andSocial Psychology Bulletin.
Hartshorne, H., and M. A. May 1928–30 Studies in theNature of Character, vols. 1–3. New York: Macmillan.
Isen, Alice M. 1970 "Success, Failure, Attention and Reaction to Others: The Warm Glow of Success." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 15:294–301.
Johnson, G. R. 1986 "Kin Selection, Socialization, and Patriotism: An Integrating Theory." Politics and theLife Sciences 4:127–154.
Kohlberg, Lawrence 1969 "Stage and Sequence: The Cognitive-Developmental Approach to Socialization." In D. Goslin, ed., Handbook of Socialization Theory andResearch. Chicago: Rand McNally.
Krebs, Dennis L., and Dale T. Miller 1985 "Altruism and Aggression." In G. Lindzey and E. Aronson, eds., TheHandbook of Social Psychology, 3rd ed., vol. 2. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.
Latané, Bibb, and John M. Darley 1970 The UnresponsiveBystander: Why Doesn't He Help? New York: Appleton-Crofts.
Lee, Lichang, Jane A. Piliavin, and Vaughn Call forth-coming "Giving Time, Money, and Blood: Similarities and Differences." Social Psychology Quarterly.
Liebrand, Wim B.G. "The Ubiquity of Social Values in Social Dilemmas." In Henk A.M. Wilke, David M. Messick, and Christel G. Rutte, eds., ExperimentalSocial Dilemmas, 113–133. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang.
Mansbridge, Jane J. (ed.) 1990 Beyond Self-Interest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McDougall, William 1908 Introduction to Social Psychology. London: Methuen.
Murphy, Lois B. 1937 Social Behavior and Child Personality: An Exploratory Study of Some Roots of Sympathy. New York: Columbia University Press.
Oliner, Pearl M., Samuel P. Oliner, Lawrence Baron, Lawrence A. Blum, Dennis L. Krebs, and M. Zuzanna Smolenska 1992 Embracing the Other: Philosophical,Psychological, and Historical Perspectives on Altruism. New York: New York University Press.
Oliner, Samuel P., and Pearl M. Oliner 1988 The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. New York: Free Press.
Penner, Louis A., and Marcia A. Finkelstein 1998 "Dispositional and Structural Determinants of Volunteerism." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74:525–537.
——, Barbara A Fritzsche, J. Philip Craiger, and Tamara S. Freifeld 1995 "Measuring the Prosocial Personality." In James N. Butcher, Charles D. Spielberger, et al., eds., Advances in Personality Assessment, vol. 10. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.
Piaget, Jean 1932 The Moral Judgment of the Child. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Piliavin, Irving M., Judith Rodin, and Jane A. Piliavin 1969 "Good Samaritanism: An Underground Phenomenon?" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 13:289–299.
Piliavin, Jane A., and Peter L. Callero 1991 Giving Blood:The Development of an Altruistic Identity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Piliavin, Jane A., and Hong-wen Charng 1990 "Altruism: A Review of Recent Theory and Research." AnnualReview of Sociology 16:25–65.
Piliavin, Jane A., John F. Dovidio, Samuel Gaertner, and Russell D. Clark 1981 Emergency Intervention. New York: Academic.
Piliavin, Jane A., and Rhoda Kesler Unger 1985 "The Helpful but Helpless Female: Myth or Reality?" In Virginia E. O'Leary, Rhoda K. Unger, and Barbara S. Wallston, eds., Women, Gender, and Social Psychology. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.
Rushton, J. Philippe 1998 "Genetic Similarity Theory and the Roots of Ethnic Conflict." The Journal ofSocial, Political, and Economic Studies 23:477–486.
Schroeder, David A., Louis A. Penner, John F. Dovidio, and Jane Allyn Piliavin 1995 The Psychology of Helpingand Altruism: Problems and Puzzles. New York: Mc-Graw-Hill.
Schwartz, Shalom H. 1977 "Normative Influences on Altruism." In L. Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 10. New York: Academic Press.
——, and Judith A. Howard 1981 "A Normative Decision-Making Model of Altruism." In J. P. Rushton and R. M. Sorrentino, eds., Altruism and HelpingBehavior: Social, Personality, and Developmental Perspectives. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.
Sober, Elliott, and David S. Wilson 1998 Unto Others: TheEvolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Sorokin, Pitirim A. 1950 Altruistic Love: A Study of American 'Good Neighbors' and Christian Saints. Boston: The Beacon Press.
——(ed.) 1970  Explorations in Altruistic Loveand Behavior: A Symposium. New York: Kraus Reprint Co. [Boston: The Beacon Press]
Ting, Jen-Chieh, and Jane A. Piliavin forthcoming "Altruism in Comparative International Perspective." In James Phillips, ed., Charities: Between State andMarket. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.
Wilson, John P. 1976 "Motivation, Modeling, and Altruism: A Person X Situation Analysis." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34:1078–1086.
Wilson, John, and Marc A. Musick 1997 "Who Cares? Toward and Integrated Theory of Volunteer Work." American Sociological Review 62:694–713.
Judith A. Howard Jane Allyn Piliavin
Altruism often is defined as an action intended to benefit another person even when that action could lead to sacrifices to the welfare of the actor. Altruism thus presents an issue for ethical reflection and a thorny problem for many scientific models of human behavior. It does not fit easily into the dominant theoretical paradigms of most behavioral sciences, which assume that self-interest is the drive that underlies human behavior. When presented with examples of altruism, analysts often dismiss them as too rare to be of practical significance or as representing self-interest in disguise. Scientific frameworks that continue to struggle with the theoretical challenge presented by altruism include evolutionary biology, whose paradigm suggests that altruistic behavior should be driven out by behavior guaranteed to produce greater evolutionary fitness; economics, which assumes that actors, whether they are people, firms, or countries, pursue perceived self-interest subject to information and opportunity costs; and rational choice theory, which was derived from economic theory but has become prevalent throughout social science and decision-making theory in the form of the cost-benefit model.
Explaining Human Altruism
Because altruism should not exist according to the basic premises of these theoretical models, much early work on altruism attempted to explain it away as a disguised form of self-interest. Economists minimized altruism by explaining it as behavior that is engaged in to provide psychic gratification, deferred material gain, or group welfare (group altruism). Using similar concepts, often under slightly different names, biologists dismissed altruism as acts designed to encourage similar behavior in the future (reciprocal altruism) or further the transmission of genetic material (kin selection). Some work on animal behavior (DeWaal 1996) suggesting that animals demonstrate strong evidence of cooperation and altruism and that human altruism may be part of people's makeup as primates has been ignored by most theorists in evolutionary biology.
Among scientists who have taken human altruism seriously as an empirical reality, not merely an aberration, much of the best work has been based on experimental laboratory experiments such as that by Daniel Batson (1991) on empathic altruism. However, experimental work cannot simulate fully the more complex interactions in the sociopolitical world. This is where political analyses, even those based on small samples, provide rich insight.
Nonlaboratory analyses of human altruism include work on why people give blood (Titmuss 1997) and extensive work on philanthropists and heroes who save others (Latané and Darley 1980, Monroe 1996). Some of the most interesting studies focus on rescuers of Jews, a group of individuals who have intrigued scientists both because of the extremity of their potential sacrifice—their families also were doomed to execution if the altruists were caught—and because they represent altruism in a situation in which their immediate society as a whole condemned their acts.
Much of the early work on rescuers is autobiographical, written by rescuers (Gies 1987) or survivors (Wiesel 1986 ), and consists of anecdotal portraits designed to document rescue activity. Little early work was focused on rescuers' motivations until Perry London's 1970 book. Early social science works on altruism were correlational and inquired about a wide variety of sociocultural factors, such as religion (Hunecke 1981), social class (Klingemann and Falter 1993), and gender (Fogelman 1994). Analysts slowly zeroed in on the psychological underpinnings of rescue behavior, focusing first on general psychological factors such as the thrill of adventure involved in rescuing or a sense of social marginality in which the rescuer felt an empathic bond with the persecuted because of the rescuer's own feeling of being an outsider.
A focus on the self began with Nechama Tec (1986), whose work highlighted personality factors, arguing that rescuers had a strong sense of individuality or separateness. Tec concluded that rescuers were motivated by moral values that did not depend on the support or approval of other people as much as it did on their own self-approval. The first important systematic analysis of rescuers established personality as the critical explanation. Samuel and Pearl Oliner's The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (1988) located the drive for altruism in habitual behavior, encouraged by parents or other significant role models, that led to habits of caring that effectively became structured as an altruistic personality. In the same year a filmed documentary in which survivors as well as rescuers were interviewed argued that rescuers "had to do it because that's the kind of people they were" (Immanuel Tanay in The Courage to Care, a 1988 Academy Award–nominated documentary by Rittener and Myers ).
Later analysts (Fogelman 1994, Monroe 1996) also noted the psychological importance of reinforcing empathic and humane behavior and stressed critical psychological factors related to the sense of self in relation to others. The values associated with altruism always included tolerance for differences among people and a worldview characterized as "extensivity" (Reykowski 2001).
Altruism, Cognition, and Categorization
The critical variable in explaining altruism seems to be the actor's internal psychology, and analysts interested in human altruism focus on the internal cognitive forces that drive altruism, asking how the altruistic personality or an altruistic worldview can influence altruistic acts. The psychological process seems to be as follows: People use categories to organize experience. The vast literature on social identity theory makes it clear that people categorize themselves in relation to others and then compare themselves with those critical others. However, there are many ways in which people may make that comparison. This means that analysts must ask not just how people construct categories but how they accord moral salience to them. Rescuers of Jews, for example, did draw distinctions between Jews and Nazis, but those categories were not relevant for the rescuers. They did not accord moral salience to those categories; both Jews and Nazis were supposed to be treated as human beings. Instead, rescuers constructed a broader or alternative category that was deemed morally salient. For rescuers the morally salient category was the human race, not ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation.
This raises an important question and gives altruism importance for more general ethical concerns: Is it the recognition of common membership in a category that is necessarily relevant for people's treatment of others? Or is it merely that shared membership in a category makes it more likely that one will treat other members of the same category well? The cognitive recognition of a shared category may tend to accord moral salience, but that is not necessarily the case. The empirical evidence from altruists suggests that it is not enough to say that people divide the world into divisions of in-group and out-group. One must ask how the categories are constructed and then how they are invested with moral salience.
The rescuers' categorization schema, for example, seemed to be one in which all people could exhibit individual and group differences but still be placed in the common category of human being. That category took on a superordinate moral status in which all people deserved to be treated with respect and dignity. The cognitive process by which rescuers viewed others—their categorization and classification of others and their perspective on themselves in relation to those others—had a critical influence on rescuers' moral actions. The cognitive process included an affective component that served as a powerful emotional reaction to another person's need. It created a feeling, possibly arising from heightened hormonal activity akin to the biochemical changes in the amygdala during fear or flight situations, that made altruists feel connected to people in need. That reaction provided the motive to work to effect change.
Is there a "scientific" process through which the psychology of altruism affects the ethical treatment of others? A critical part of the process appears to involve identity. Something in the external situation triggers a perception by the altruist that there is a shared bond: Perhaps the person in need is a helpless child or reminds the altruist of someone she or he once knew and liked. Perhaps someone with the potential altruist indicates a sense of concern for the needy person. This perception causes the altruist to place the needy person in the category of someone who needs help and whose situation of neediness is relevant for altruism. The categorization and perspective on the needy person in relation to the actor cause the altruist to feel a moral imperative to act, to move beyond feeling sympathy and become involved in an active sense.
Altruism thus is related to the manner in which the external environment taps into the altruist's core self-concept, which is distinguished by the altruist's self-image as a person who cares for others. As a general rule it is this perspective that links the altruist's self-image to the circumstances of others by highlighting the situation of the person in need in a way that accords a moral imperative to the plight of others. When one taps into this self-concept, the suffering of others becomes morally salient for altruists in the way the plight of one's child or parent would be salient for most people.
Because the values of caring for others are so deeply integrated into altruists' self-concepts, these values form a self-image that constitutes the underlying structure of their identities. This means that the needs of others frequently are deemed morally salient for altruists. This self-concept transforms altruists' knowledge of another person's need into a moral imperative that requires them to take action. Their self-concepts are so closely linked to what is considered acceptable behavior that altruists do not merely note the suffering of others; that suffering takes on a moral salience, a feeling that they must do something to help. Even in the extreme situation of the Holocaust the suffering of Jews was felt as something that was relevant for the rescuers. It established a moral imperative that necessitated action.
Although hard data are difficult to obtain, the fact that those rescuers felt a moral imperative to help is evident in statements that reveal their implicit assumptions about what ordinary decent people should do. The unspoken expectations are embedded deep in a rescuers' psyche and are revealed in rescuers' descriptions of what was and what was not in their repertoire of behavior. For rescuers all people within the boundaries of their community of concern were to be treated the same, and their circle of concern included all human beings. That perception of a shared humanity triggered a sense of relationship to the other that made the suffering of another person a concern for the rescuers. Significantly, this extensivity included Nazis, with the rescuers demonstrating an extraordinary forgiveness of Nazis. It is the role of perspective to classify and categorize people and then to work through a cognitive process of salience that provides the link between the lack of choice and identity and the variation in a person's treatment of others.
The scientific literature thus suggests that the empirical evidence linking identity to altruism follows these critical links: (1) the innate human desire for self-esteem and the need for continuity of self-image; (2) core values stressing the sanctity of life and human well-being that are integrated into altruists' underlying concept of who they are; and (3) external stimuli that trigger critical aspects of altruists' multifaceted and complex identity in a way that compels them to notice and accord moral salience to the suffering of others.
KRISTEN RENWICK MONROE
Batson, Daniel C. (1991). The Altruism Question: Toward a Social Psychological Answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. A thorough empirical examination that focuses on determining whether altruism exists and emphasizes empathy as a critical predictor.
DeWaal, Frans. (1996). Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. A noted zoologist and ethologist specializing in the study of primate behavior argues that ethical behavior is rooted in people's nature as primates.
Fogelman, Eva. (1994). Conscience and Courage. New York: Anchor. A survey of data on rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust emphasizes demographic correlates.
Hunecke, Douglas K. (1981–1982). "A Study of Christians Who Rescued Jews During the Nazi Era." Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 9(1): 144–149. Emphasizes the demographic characteristics of rescuers, such as religion.
Klingemann, Ute, and Jurgen Falter (1993). Hilfe fuer Juden waehrend des Holocaust. Rheinland-Verlag GmbH Koeln. A comprehensive survey of rescuers that emphasizes demographic correlates.
Latané, Bibb, and John M. Darley. (1980). The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn't He Help? New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. A classic social psychological work on the importance of others for bystander/rescue behavior.
London, Perry. (1970). "The Rescuers: Motivational Hypotheses about Christians Who Saved Jews from the Nazis." In Altruism and Helping Behavior, ed. Jacqueline Macauley and Leonard Berkowitz. New York: Academic Press. The first important empirical examination of rescuers.
Monroe, Kristen Renwick. (1996). The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Links empirical examination of altruism to social theories based on self-interest to argue that such theories offer only a partial account of human conduct.
Oliner, Samuel P. (2003). Do Unto Others: Extraordinary Acts of Ordinary People. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Expands earlier work on rescuers into everyday life to reveal altruists at work.
Oliner, Samuel P., and Pearl Oliner. (1988). The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. New York: Free Press. A comprehensive survey of rescuers during the Holocaust that emphasizes the ingrained habits of caring that form an altruistic personality.
Reykowski, Janusz. (2001). "The Justice Motive and Altruistic Helping: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Europe." In The Justice Movement in Everyday Life: Essays in Honor of Melvin J. Lerner, ed. Michael Ross and Dale T. Miller. New York: Cambridge University Press. Explains and advances extensivity as the psychological phenomenon that critically influences altruism.
Rittner, Carol, and Sondra Myers. (1986). The Courage to Care. New York: New York University Press. A moving documentary and photo book on rescuers during the Holocaust.
Tec, Nechama. (1986). When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland. New York: Oxford University Press. Builds on the author's experiences to explain the importance of the self-concept for altruism.
Titmuss, Richard M. (1997). The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy. New York: New Press. One of first serious social science explanations of altruism.
Wiesel, Elie. (1986 ). Night. New York: Bantam. One of many books by a Nobel laureate on the Holocaust.
In biology, altruism is animal behavior that directly benefits others rather than the individual. Living in the company of other animals presents numerous drawbacks, including increased competition for food, nest sites, and mates, and increased visibility to predators, to name just a few. We might expect animals to strive to outdo the competition whenever possible, to take the best food and other resources for themselves, and to put other individuals between themselves and the lurking predator. Yet many animals are observed to act in ways that help one another: a ground squirrel, spotting a hunting hawk, stands tall and gives a shrill alarm call, potentially drawing the hawk’s attention to itself; a lioness allows cubs that are not her own to suckle alongside her cubs; a honeybee comes to the defense of its hive by stinging an encroacher, an act which proves fatal to the bee. Such self-sacrificing acts of altruism require an explanation, because they seem to contradict what we would expect in a world shaped by natural selection. If competition is the name of the game, why should animals sometimes place the interests of another creature before their own, even to the point of suicide?
Biologists recognize altruism when an animal such as an alarm-calling ground squirrel sustains some risk to itself by aiding another animal, whose reproductive success is thereby given a boost. The alarm-calling squirrel presumably risks attack by calling attention to itself; in addition, if the squirrel is watching out for predators, it will not be able to forage or perform other activities as well. Squirrels nearby can profit, however, as they scatter for cover from the predator. Evolutionary biologists have puzzled over how altruistic behavior of all kinds could evolve, since evolution requires maximizing reproductive success, not sacrificing it. An explanation was provided by William D. Hamilton in 1964, who showed that if a helper directs aid to a genetic relative, it may be more than compensated, in reproductive terms, by the increased reproduction of that relative—with whom it typically shares many genes. The key to genetic representation in future generations—and evolutionary success—can thus be brought about either by having offspring, or by helping relatives to do so, in a phenomenon known as kin selection. Biologists have postulated the existence of so-called “green-beard” genes, which result in traits, such as a “green beard,” a patch of color, or a certain odor, that enable an animal to recognize kin and non-kin. Recently, a gene of this type was identified in red fire ants.
The altruistic behavior of honeybees, lionesses, and ground squirrels is almost certainly facilitated by the social context in which these animals live; they are surrounded by genetic relatives, whose welfare is of direct interest to a potential helper. More difficult to explain is altruism that occurs between individuals who are not related. Unrelated male olive baboons in Africa team up to steal a sexually receptive female from a higher-ranking rival male: as one interloper harasses the dominant male, the other solicits and mates with the female. The next time, the two allies may switch roles, so that each benefits by the association. Relationships based on such reciprocity have been identified as reciprocal altruism by sociobiologist Robert L. Trivers. Reciprocal altruism does not require that the actor and the recipient be genetic relatives, but the actor has the expectation that the aid will be returned in kind at a later time. Individuals who defect or cheat in these relationships are likely to be abandoned or even punished by the defrauded partner.
There also are many examples among cooperative animal societies of indirect reciprocity, wherein altruistic actions benefit the social group as a whole, and thereby indirectly benefit the perpetrator of the altruistic act. In these instances, it is unclear whether natural selection is acting on the genes of the individual or of the group as a whole, a model known as “group selection.” The altruistic behaviors of Arabian babbler birds clearly benefit the group; however, these birds actually compete among themselves by altruistic acts. The most altruistic babblers are at the top of the social hierarchy and therefore are the most likely to reproduce and pass on their genes. Thus, altruism may signal the biological fitness of an individual to a potential mate.
Sociobiologists, who apply many of the biological principles observed in insect societies to societies of higher animals, including human beings, have been challenged to explain human altruism. Newspapers and other media are full of accounts of acts of heroism: people donate blood and other organs, dive into a raging river to save a foundering stranger, or leave the waitress a tip in a restaurant even though the tipper will never return. Sociobiologists argue that while the benefits of such actions are delayed in time, they may be cumulative and profound. In a highly social species like humans, reputation may be everything; individuals who establish themselves as reliable partners in social exchange are likely to be highly desirable as associates in reciprocity. With this in mind, it may not be surprising to discover that many “anonymous” acts of altruism are not necessarily anonymous at all: for example, although blood donors never learn who receives their blood, and never reap a reward directly from the recipient, they often wear a sticker proclaiming, “Be nice to me—I gave blood today!” The reward may come from other individuals who become favorably inclined toward the donor, and the donor further buttresses his or her reputation as a desirable partner in reciprocal altruism.
However, some scientists and other thinkers argue against the view that all human moral behaviors can be reduced to such simple biological explanations. Not all human moral behaviors are rewarded by individual advancement. Altruistic behaviors which result with high probability in the death of the individual, as in some rescue or combat situations, are of this type: there is no reciprocity or social advancement for the dead. Whenever a costly behavior is undertaken on behalf of a complete stranger or a nonhuman individual (e.g., Greenpeace activists risking their lives to prevent a whale from being harpooned) the argument that the altruistic individuals’ relatives’ DNA is being defended by the behavior is weak. At a more trivial level, some individuals who give blood elect not to wear the offered sticker proclaiming their good behavior. Thus, in general, at least some anonymous acts of altruism really are anonymous.
The hasty application of animal studies to human behavior, which is more complex than anything observed in non-human creatures, even other primates, is questionable as science—especially in the absence of hard experimental and observational evidence. Moreover, human moral standards vary to some extent between different societies, which limits the extent to which those standards can be explained as a form of genetic programming.
While benevolence, compassion, and humanity were not major virtues for the ancient philosophers, modern moral philosophers generally agree that altruism is important to morality, although they disagree about what it is, how to explain it, and what its scope should be. The nineteenth-century French theorist Auguste Comte, who first coined the term altruism, claimed that the way to end social conflict is by training people to "live for others," rather than themselves. In a popular sense, altruism means something like noble self-sacrifice. A more minimal understanding, one that many philosophers favor, is an acknowledgment that the interests of others make claims on us and limit what we may do.
Altruism made its way into moral theory when Christian philosophers added the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity to the cardinal virtues of the Greeks. Charity, the greatest of the theological virtues, was thought to be an inner spiritual orientation toward others. Charity is characterized as disinterested, universal, and unconditional. It should be directed to everyone, saint and sinner alike, regardless of merit.
The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson followed the Christian philosophers, claiming that everyone is capable of Christian love—calm universal benevolence—that aims at the good of all sentient creatures. He also distinguished two other types of benevolence: love directed toward smaller groups or particular persons, such as parental affection and friendship, and particular feelings of pity, sympathy, and gratitude. Christian love is the best form of benevolence; the other two are good so long as they do not counteract it.
Hutcheson's view about how altruistic we should be is even more radical than the Christian view. Reducing virtue to benevolence, he argues that none of the four cardinal virtues of the Greeks—temperance, courage, prudence, justice—are virtues unless their practice is motivated by love. Temperance is not a virtue, unless motivated by a concern to make ourselves fit to serve others. Courage is mere craziness, unless we face dangers in order to defend the innocent or to right wrongs. Prudence is not a virtue if it aims only at promoting our own interests. Justice is not a virtue unless it has a regard for the good of humankind. Hutcheson derives the utility principle—maximizing happiness for the greatest number—from the idea that the morally best motive is calm, universal benevolence.
Later utilitarians made the utility principle central to their account of moral rightness, but detached it from Hutcheson's basis in Christian love. Many utilitarians have argued that our duties of benevolence are extreme, so their view about the scope of benevolence is radical in another way. As long as I have the power to benefit others without hurting myself so much that total utility is reduced, I am obligated to help them. On this view, giving aid to famine relief, for example, is not a matter of charity but a duty.
There are two other ways of understanding altruism. One way, adopted by David Hume in the eighteenth century and by Bernard Williams as well as some feminist thinkers in the twentieth, characterizes altruism in terms of particular benevolent dispositions, desires, or affections. According to this view, you help others because you love them. Hume denied that we have the universal love of humankind to which Hutcheson and the Christian philosophers appealed, but thought that such benevolent dispositions as parental love and friendship were morally important character traits essential for virtue. Hume also thought that we possess the capacity to act from sympathy. When you see someone in distress, sympathy leads you to feel distress, which in turn motivates you to alleviate your distress by alleviating theirs. Sympathy enables us to extend our love for particular individuals and smaller groups to larger groups of people.
Williams's view is similar to Hume's. Some of our particular benevolent desires are directed toward people we care about, for example, a daughter or friend, and are motivated by thoughts like "Mary needs help." Other benevolent desires are more general and impersonal concerns, motivated by thoughts like "someone needs help." Williams claims that the structure of the motivating thought in both cases is the same. Although altruism is not a rational requirement on action, Williams thinks that sympathetic reflection may move us from benevolent desires motivated by our love of particular individuals to more general altruistic dispositions.
Some feminist philosophers have argued that altruistic dispositions such as caring, compassion, and maternal love should be made the focus of morality. These philosophers claim that relationships should be at the heart of morality and that most of our relationships are not only intimate, but also involuntary. They argue that an ethics of care rather than an ethics of justice is appropriate for these types of relationships.
By contrast, philosophers in the Kantian tradition conceive of altruism as a rational requirement on action. They claim there is no need to postulate a benevolent desire to explain altruism. Kant's initial argument appeals to his requirement that we may only act on principles that we can will as universal laws. Willing a world in which everyone has a policy of not helping others, while knowing that you will need help, would be inconsistent, so we must will to help those who are in need. Kant also argues for a duty of beneficence on the basis of the requirement of treating humanity as an end in itself. He argues that you must treat the ends of others as you treat your own ends. You take your own ends to be good and worth pursuing, so consistency requires that you treat the ends of others as good and worth pursuing. This suggests that we have reason to help not only those in need, but anyone we are in a position to help.
Thomas Nagel follows Kant in thinking that the reasons of others directly provide us with reasons. Suppose someone wants you to stop tormenting him. How does that person's desire not to be treated that way give you a reason to stop? At an intuitive level, Nagel's argument appeals to the question: How would you like it if someone did that to you? You realize that if someone were tormenting you, you would not merely dislike what he was doing, you would resent it. Resentment is a response to the idea that someone has ignored a reason he has to not treat you badly. The reason in this case is your own desire not to be tormented. You think your desire not to be tormented is a reason for your tormentor to stop. Since you think that your reasons provide direct reasons for others, you must also think that the reasons of others provide you with reasons. The argument turns on the idea that your reasons and the reasons of your victim are the same: they are the reasons of a person. According to Nagel, the argument works only because you have the capacity to view yourself as just one person among others. Although Humeans and Kantians disagree about whether to explain altruism in terms of particular desires or to view it as a rational requirement on action, they agree that the force of altruism springs from our common humanity.
Hume, David. Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740). 3 vols., edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.
Hutcheson, Francis. An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of Passions and Affections with Illustrations upon the Moral Sense (1728), edited by Aaron Garrett. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2002.
Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by James W. Ellington. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1993. Originally published as Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (Riga: J. F. Hartknoch, 1875).
Nagel, Thomas. The Possibility of Altruism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.
Williams, Bernard. Problems of the Self. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
Charlotte R. Brown (2005)
One fundamental question about human nature is whether people are ever capable of genuinely altruistic acts. The term altruism is typically used to reflect one of two concepts. The first is evolutionary altruism, which refers to helping behavior that benefits another at some cost to oneself. Evolutionary altruism reflects behavior caused by many different habits and motives assumed to have evolved in a species because they promote the longterm reproduction of species members’ genes. The term altruism is also used to reflect psychological altruism, which refers to a motivational state with the goal of increasing another’s welfare. Psychological altruism is typically contrasted with psychological egoism, which refers to a motivational state with the goal of increasing one’s own welfare.
There has been much debate about whether humans possess the capacity for psychological altruism. One claim that assumes psychological altruism exists is the empathy-altruism hypothesis, which states that feelings of empathic concern for a person in need evoke an altruistic motive. Feelings of empathic concern have been contrasted with feelings of personal distress. Feelings of personal distress are assumed to evoke motivation to reduce these unpleasant emotions by either escaping continued exposure to the person’s suffering or by helping, whichever happens to be the least costly option in the situation. Consistent with these claims, research suggests that people feeling empathic concern tend to help even if they can easily escape exposure to the victim’s suffering, whereas people feeling personal distress tend to help only when escape from continued exposure to the person’s suffering is difficult or impossible.
The tendency for an observer to help a needy other as a result of evolutionary altruistic or psychological altruistic processes is also influenced by factors that affect helping behavior more generally. For example, research demonstrates that observers are more likely to help a person if they (1) notice the person and (2) recognize that the person is in need. Even then, help is likely only if observers (3) assume personal responsibility for reducing the person’s need. Research also suggests that the number of observers witnessing the need situation can actually reduce the likelihood that any one observer will offer help (i.e., the bystander effect ). However, observers who experience psychological altruism may be immune to this diffusion of responsibility because empathy may promote feelings of responsibility for the victim regardless of the number of additional bystanders present in the situation.
In development, helping behavior appears to emerge as early as two years of age in humans. However, the cause of these behaviors (e.g., evolutionary altruistic versus psychological altruistic processes, or neither) has been debated. There is also debate about the extent to which evolutionary altruistic or psychological altruistic processes influence, or are influenced by, an individual’s personality characteristics. Some research shows that people scoring high on personality measures that assess altruism-relevant characteristics (e.g., perspective-taking, emotionality, and responsibility for others’ welfare) are more likely to help than people scoring low on these measures. Again, it is unclear whether such behavior reflects evolutionary altruistic processes, psychological altruistic processes, or neither. Future research will almost certainly address, and hopefully answer, these and other questions about the existence of altruism in humans.
SEE ALSO Altruism and Prosocial Behavior; Empathy; Evolutionary Psychology; Sociobiology
Batson, C. Daniel, and Laura L. Shaw. 1991. Evidence for Altruism: Toward a Pluralism of Prosocial Motives. Psychological Inquiry 2 (2): 107-122.
Sober, Elliot, and David Sloan Wilson. 1998. Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
David A. Lishner
E. L. Stocks
Altruism is a modern concept attributed to Auguste Comte, a French philosopher who founded the field of sociology in the mid-nineteenth century. The idea of altruism has antecedents in the early modern discussion of benevolence and in such ancient religious notions as Buddhist compassion and Christian agape. An important difference is the explicit focus in altruism on the other as the object of concern, which, in turn, reflects the sharper focus on the self that is characteristic of modern self-consciousness. For Comte, altruism identified the concern for others that he expected would characterize the positive religion of humanity that was destined to replace the false religion of the prescientific, theological, and metaphysical eras. Although Comte would have been disappointed with the extent to which altruism has actually flourished, his concept has become an enduring, if ambiguous, staple of modern Western understanding.
Altruism in biology and sociobiology
The notion of altruism has been accorded a significant role in biology, and especially in the refinements of sociobiology, where the term has a technical meaning that narrows the conventional sense of concern for others in terms of the biological concentration on reproduction. As, from a biological perspective, the point of life is reproduction, altruism acquires the meaning of actions that diminish the reproductive prospects of the altruist, while enhancing those of the recipient of the action. For biology and sociobiology, altruism represents something of an anomaly. Because evolution favors the development of inclusive fitness, altruism should have been selected out of existence. But it is firmly present, in the strictest biological sense, in whole classes of nonreproductive workers like ants and bees. Sociobiology has resolved this anomaly by defining altruism out of existence. What may look like altruism on the behavioral level may turn out to be decidedly selfish on the gene level if the recipient of the altruistic behavior is a relative of the putative altruist and so shares the same genes. The concept of kin altruism thus explains the sacrifice of reproductive prospects for those who share the same genes. Cases where the beneficiary has no identifiable relation are covered by the notion of reciprocal altruism. Here again, what appears to be altruistic behavior is really selfish because it is done with the expectation, genetically speaking, of reciprocal aid that may be required by the altruist in the future. The imperialism of selfish genes thus destroys any semblance of altruistic behavior at the biological level.
Altruism in social science and ethics
The assumption of the primacy of self-interest that dominates sociobiology has been questioned in the social sciences with research into altruism and helping behavior, and yet here too the self-interest assumption remains strong. The favored alternative to a self-interest reading involves a calculative or caring mutuality, for which expectations of altruism may be more detrimental than self-interest. Altruism represents a morality of service and self-sacrifice. Critics point out that such a noble and self-deprecating approach has often been expected of other people; even when its advocates have taken it seriously themselves, it can constitute an individualistic heroism that deflects attention and action from the real possibilities of mutuality inherent in the actual social relations in which people find themselves. Approaches as diverse as the justice procedures of John Rawls (which challenge one to imagine one is designing a society in which one does not know where one will be placed so that one will have to take into account the state of those on the lowest rungs of the social and economic ladders because one might be one of those people) and the alternative stance of feminist care morality (which sees a focus on individual moral action, even, and perhaps especially, the most heroic, as misguided neglect of the social relations of give and take that daily lives actually involve) agree on the superiority of social mutuality over allowance for, much less expectations of, altruism.
Limitations of the concept
Altruism does carry the liabilities of its origins. As a social concept, meant to counterbalance the excesses of self-interest, altruism is finally only intelligible in relation to the self-interest with which it is contrasted; it is concern for others, rather than what is taken to be the natural and virtually inevitable concern for self. Because it carries this legacy, altruism bears the liability of undermining itself through its own deliberateness. Deliberate focus on the other as the object of one's concern may represent an implicit interest in the self as the source of this concern—a consideration that prompted the nineteenth-century American writer Henry David Thoreau to allow that he would run for his life if he knew that someone was coming to see him with the deliberate intention of doing him good. It is this lack of attention and openness to the other that bothers many contemporary critics of the loss of mutuality in the focus on altruism. That such dangers warrant a dismissal of the whole notion, however, is another matter. Without the moral heroism that altruism entails, reliance on the mutuality of social relations may amount to a frightening leveling down of moral expectations and results. The saints, the philosopher William James contended, are the impregnators of culture, raising it to higher levels through their risking ways of living that hold no obvious benefit for themselves. The philosopher and ethicist Edith Wyschogrod has nominated altruists as the saints of secular culture.
Suspicion of altruism may be a reflection of the secularization of contemporary culture, and the concept itself may be indicative of a lingering religious sensibility in Comte, who still expected a religion of humanity to develop. As such, it suggests that concern for others is finally only feasible through the deliverance from self that is offered by and celebrated in religion. This allows for the indirection that makes the aims of altruism possible, without the short-circuiting of a focus on altruism itself, and hence on the altruist. Of course, this in no way entails that devotees of religion exemplify the reality to which altruism points. Fortunately, religion also offers forgiveness along with the altruistic vision. This could represent the counsel of complacency that advocates of mutuality fear, but it could also represent the heroic initiative and extravagant saintliness that the realism of social mutuality threatens to undermine.
see also anthropology; behaviorism; christianity; evolution; self; selfish gene; sociobiology
dawkins, richard. the selfish gene. london: granada, 1978.
grant, colin. altruism and christian ethics. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 2001.
kittay, eva feder, and myers, diana t., eds. women and moral theory. totawa, n.j.: rowman and littlefield, 1987.
mansbridge, jane j., ed. beyond self-interest. chicago: university of chicago press, 1990.
paul, ellen frankel; miller, fred d., jr.; and paul, jeffrey, eds. altruism. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1993.
rawls, john. a theory of justice. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1971.
wyschogrod, edith. saints and postmodernism: revisioning moral philosophy. chicago: university of chicago press, 1990.
Freud refers to the concept of altruism approximately ten times in his work, most often in a social or cultural context. In "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" he writes:
Throughout an individual's life there is a constant replacement of external by internal compulsion. The influences of civilization cause an ever-increasing transformation of egoistic trends into altruistic and social ones by an admixture of erotic elements. In the last resort it may be assumed that every internal compulsion which makes itself felt in the development of human beings was originally—that is, in the history of mankind —only an external one. Those who are born to-day bring with them as an inherited organization some degree of tendency (disposition) towards the transformation of egoistic into social instincts, and this disposition is easily stimulated into bringing about that result. (1915b, p. 282).
In other cases, Freud uses the term most frequently against a background of what he called, in an exchange with Oskar Pfister, his "joyous pessimism." After pointing out that except when in love, "the opposite of egotism, altruism, does not, as a concept, coincide with libidinal object-cathexis" (1916-17a [1915-17], p. 418), he added, rather laconically, in Civilization and Its Discontents, "the development of the individual seems to us to be a product of the interaction between two urges, the urge towards happiness, which we usually call 'egoistic', and the urge towards union with others in the community, which we call 'altruistic'. Neither of these descriptions goes much below the surface. In the process of individual development, as we have said, the main accent falls mostly on the egoistic urge (or the urge towards happiness); while the other urge, which may be described as a 'cultural' one, is usually content with the role of imposing restrictions" (1930a , p. 140).
However, in the third part of The Ego and the Mechanism of Defence (1936/1937), Anna Freud provides an example of two types of defense, namely, "identification with the aggressor" and "a form of altruism." And in connection with the mechanism of projection, she conceives of "altruistic surrender" (altruistische Abtretung, according to the expression used by Edward Bibring):
The mechanism of projection disturbs our human relations when we project our own jealousy and attribute to other people our own aggressive acts. But it may work in another way as well, enagling us to form valuable positive attachments and so to consolidate our relations with one another. This normal and less conspicuous form of projection might be described as 'altruistic surrender' of our own instinctual impulses in favour of other people (p. 133).
Using a clinical example, Anna Freud analyzes the transference of the subject's own desires to others, a transference that enables the subject to participate in the instinctual satisfaction of another person through projection and identification. In speaking of this process, she refers to Paul Federn's comments concerning identification through sympathy.
The section of the book devoted to the study of two mechanisms of defense is is placed between a chapter on the preliminary stages of defense—the avoidance of unpleasure in the face of real dangers (negation through fantasy, negation through acts and words and withdrawal of the ego)—and a chapter on the phenomena of puberty and the defenses arising from fear associated with the intensity of instinctual processes. To Anna Freud, the mechanisms of identification with the aggressor and altruism can be conceived as intermediary stages of defense, centered on the transition from anxieties arising from external dangers to subsequent anxieties arising from internal dangers.
This explains the projection inherent in both types of defense and the role of the superego in the genesis of altruistic surrender: "Analysis of such situations shows that this defensive process has its origin in the infantile conflict with parental authority about some form of instinctual gratification" (p. 141). Other passages in her work support this view: "Her early renunciation of instinct had resulted in the formation of an exceptionally strong super-ego, which made it impossible for her to gratify her own wishes. . . . She projected her prohibited instinctual impulses on to other people, just as the patients did whose cases I quoted in the last chapter. . . . In most cases the substitute has once been the object of envy" (pp. 135-36, 136, 141). She also points out that altruistic surrender is a means for overcoming narcissistic humiliation.
Finally, for Anna Freud, altruism could involve libidinal impulses as well as destructive impulses and, moreover, could affect either the realization of desires or their renunciation. Her analysis of the mechanism of defense finishes with an approach to its connection with the fear of death, by examining the bonds between the hero Cyrano de Bergerac and his friend Christian. Anna Freud provides a concluding note on the similarity between the conditions needed to initiate altruistic surrender and those present during the formation of masculine homosexuality.
Anna Freud's position was subsequently revisited with respect to such concerns as the psychodynamics of anorexic adolescents.
See also: Antinarcissism; Burlingham-Tiffany, Dorothy; Identification with the aggressor; Reaction-formation.
Freud, Anna. (1937). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1936)
Freud, Sigmund. (1915b). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 275-300.
——. (1916-17a [1915-17]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 15-16.
——. (1930a ). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 64-145.
Freud, Anna. (1936). A form of altruism. In Writings of Anna Freud (Vol. 2, pp. 122-134).
McWilliams, Nancy. (1984). The psychology of the altruist. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 1, 193-214.
Seelig, Bud, et. al. (2001). Normal and pathological altruism. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 49, 933-960.
Altruism refers to animal behavior that benefits other animals of the same species . Living in the company of other animals presents numerous drawbacks, including increased competition for food, nest sites, and mates, and increased visibility to predators, to name just a few. We might expect animals to strive to outdo the competition whenever possible, to take the best food and other resources for themselves, and to put other individuals between themselves and the lurking predator . Yet many animals are observed to act in ways that help one another: a ground squirrel, spotting a hunting hawk, stands tall and gives a shrill alarm call, potentially drawing the hawk's attention to itself; a lioness allows cubs that are not her own to suckle alongside her cubs; a honeybee comes to the defense of its hive by stinging an encroacher, an act which proves fatal to the bee. Such self-sacrificing acts of altruism require an explanation, because they seem to contradict what we would expect in a world shaped by natural selection . If competition is the name of the game, why should animals sometimes place the interests of another creature before their own, even to the point of suicide?
Biologists recognize altruism when an animal, like an alarm-calling ground squirrel, sustains some cost to its present or future reproduction by aiding another animal, whose reproductive success is thereby given a boost. The alarm-calling squirrel presumably risks attack by calling attention to itself; in addition, if the squirrel is watching out for predators, it will not be able to forage or perform other activities well. Squirrels nearby can profit, however, as they scatter for cover from the predator. Evolutionary biologists have puzzled over how altruistic behavior of all kinds could evolve, since evolution requires maximizing reproductive success, not sacrificing it. An explanation was provided by William D. Hamilton in 1964, who showed that if a helper directs aid to a genetic relative, it may be more than compensated, in reproductive terms, by the increased reproduction of that relative—with whom it typically shares many genes. The key to genetic representation in future generations—and evolutionary success—can thus be brought about either by having offspring, or by helping relatives to do so, in a phenomenon known as kin selection. Biologists have postulated the existence of so-called "green-beard" genes, which result in traits, such as a "green beard," a patch of color , or a certain odor, that enable an animal to recognize kin and non-kin. Recently, a gene of this type was identified in red fire ants .
The altruistic behavior of honeybees, lionesses, and ground squirrels is almost certainly facilitated by the social context in which these animals live: they are surrounded by genetic relatives, whose welfare is of direct interest to a potential helper. More difficult to explain is altruism that occurs between individuals who are not related. Unrelated male olive baboons in Africa team up to steal a sexually receptive female from a higher-ranking rival male: as one interloper harasses the dominant male, the other solicits and mates with the female. The next time, the two allies may switch roles, so that each benefits by the association. Helping relationships based on such reciprocity have been identified as reciprocal altruism by sociobiologist Robert L. Trivers. Reciprocal altruism does not require that the actor and the recipient be genetic relatives, but the actor has the expectation that the aid will be returned in kind at a later time. Individuals who defect or cheat in these relationships are likely to be abandoned or even punished by the defrauded partner.
There also are many examples among cooperative animal societies of indirect reciprocity, wherein altruistic actions benefit the social group as a whole, and thereby indirectly benefit the perpetrator of the altruistic act. In these instances, it is unclear whether natural selection is acting on the genes of the individual or of the group as a whole, a model known as "group selection." The altruistic behaviors of Arabian babbler birds clearly benefit the group; however, these birds actually compete among themselves by altruistic acts. The most altruistic babblers are at the top of the social hierarchy and therefore are the most likely to reproduce and pass on their genes. Thus, altruism may signal the biological fitness of an individual to a potential mate.
Sociobiologists, who apply many of the biological principles observed in insect societies to societies of higher animals, including human beings, have been challenged to explain human altruism. Newspapers and other media are full of accounts of acts of heroism: people donate blood and other organs, dive in a raging river to save a floundering stranger, or leave the waitress a tip in a restaurant even though the tipper will never return. Sociobiologists argue that while the benefits of such actions are delayed in time, they may be cumulative and profound. In a supremely social species like humans, reputation may be everything; individuals who establish themselves as reliable partners in social exchange are likely to be highly desirable as associates in reciprocity. With this in mind, it may not be surprising to discover that many "anonymous" acts of altruism are not anonymous at all: for example, although blood donors never learn who receives their blood, and never reap a reward directly from the recipient, they often wear a sticker proclaiming, "Be nice to me—I gave blood today!" The reward may come from other individuals who become favorably inclined toward the donor, and the donor further buttresses his or her reputation as a desirable partner in reciprocal altruism.
Altruism, defined as an action that benefits the receiver but comes at some cost to the performer, is one of the four types of social interactions that can occur between animals of the same species. Figure 1 summarizes these four interactions. Cooperation, where both actor and receiver benefit, and selfishness, where the action benefits the actor at the expense of the receiver, are by far the most common of the four interactions in nature. Spite, where both actor and receiver are harmed, and altruism are very rare.
The prevalence of cooperation and selfishness over altruism and spite is explained by the rules of natural selection . The currency of natural selection is offspring. Any anatomical, physiological, or behavioral trait that enhances an individual's ability to produce more offspring will be favored, and the trait will be selected regardless of the effects on others. For example, seagulls sometimes steal food from nesting neighbors to feed themselves and their chicks. This behavior clearly increases the fitness of the actor while decreasing the fitness of the receiver; it is selfish. Imagine an altruistic seagull that willingly provided food for its neighbors. This trait would not last very long in the population because the helpful gull would not be able to feed many of its own offspring.
Reciprocal Altruism and Kin Selection
Despite the odds against altruism evolving, it does exist in nature. Some biologists, however, consider these instances to be examples of pseudoaltruism, and insist that true altruism has yet to be found. Pseudoaltruistic acts appear to be altruistic, but "in the long run" are actually beneficial to the actor. There are two types of pseudoaltruism—reciprocal altruism and kin selection.
This occurs when the actor acts altruistically in expectation of having the same done in return at a later time. Many animals that live in groups will post sentinels to watch for predators while the rest forage for food. The sentinel changes several times daily, so the animal "on duty" is assured of being protected later when it is his turn to forage. Vampire bats provide another example. If, when the group returns from hunting, one individual has not found food, a neighbor will regurgitate a portion of its meal for the hungry one. The next evening, the helpful bat may be the hungry one and need the favor returned.
This other type of pseudoaltruism, kin selection, was proposed by British scientist W. D. Hamilton in 1964. He realized that an individual could not only increase his fitness by having its own offspring, but it could also help a close relative raise its offspring, since they share genes. The combination of individual fitness and fitness through kin selection is inclusive fitness. Hamilton argued that if the benefits the actor receives by helping its relatives outweighs the cost of the action, then altruism can evolve. This concept can be expressed mathematically through Hamilton's Rule : br c, where b is the benefit to the actor, r is the relatedness of the actor to the receiver, and c is the cost to the actor. Relatedness is measured by the proportion of genes that are identical between two individuals. Because of Mendelian inheritance, half of a diploid individual's genes are shared with each of its parents, siblings, and children. Diploid grandparents share one-quarter of their genes with their grandchildren, and cousins share one-eighth of their genes with each other. An individual who helps two of its siblings, four of its grandchildren, or eight of its cousins is just as fit as the individual who helps only itself.
Kenyan bee-eaters of the bird genus Merops, have evolved behaviors by kin selection. Male bee-eaters will typically forgo reproducing when they are young, instead opting to help more mature birds raise their young. These young males help relatives more often than nonrelatives, thus raising their inclusive fitness. Young males that attempt to have their own offspring actually fare worse than helpers because their territories are too poor to raise more than one chick.
The classic example of altruism occurs in the eusocial bees. Honeybee workers rarely reproduce, letting the queen provide all the offspring. An unusual chromosome condition, called haplodiploidy , produces unusual relatedness among the bees in a hive. Workers are actually more related to their sisters (eggs laid by the queen) than their own offspring! Although honeybees are considered the classic example of altruism, they really practice a form of kin selection. True altruism has not yet been found in nature, and some scientists believe that true altruism can be found only in human populations.
see also Social Animals.
Jes Marie Creech
Alcock, John. Animal Behavior, 6th ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1997.
Pfennig, David W., and Paul W. Sherman. "Kin Recognition." Scientific American 272, no. 6 (1995): 98-103.
Sherman, Paul W., and John Alcock. Exploring Animal Behavior: Readings from American Scientist, 2nd ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1998.
Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.